At a time of intense Jewish-Palestinian tension, New York City can model coexistence
New York’s great fortune is to be home to millions of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and pagans of all stripes, the vast majority of whom coexist in harmony. This simple fact is not a political statement, but rather a declaration of solidarity with my friends of all faiths across this city, especially in this collective dark hour.
Like so many New Yorkers with love for my Jewish neighbors — the late great New Yorker Jay Kriegel went so far as to dub me a “Hindjew” — my adoration extends equally to my many Muslim besties from Beirut to Bangladesh. With the latter I share a language, Bengali, and therefore frequent conversations in cabs, as well as a border, born as I was in Calcutta. My father’s West Bengal birthplace was about a hundred miles to the north, in the very rural village of Baidara just minutes from Bangladesh, which accounts for the mix of Muslims and Hindus that have peaceably constituted that beautiful village’s few thousand residents for a few thousand years.
The barbarism of October 7 in Israel immediately brought to my mind the Mumbai terror attacks of late 2008, which occurred a few weeks before I picked up our adopted baby daughter from India. The trauma of people on the ground was tangible, as was the rage in an India that palpably, however imperfect, defines itself through peace. Yuval Noah Harari has described a crime against humanity as one so heinous that it demands we question our faith in our own species. One of the clear goals of global terrorism is to erode this faith in ourselves, to destroy our seemingly waning conviction that we have built anything great, or done anything good, together.
And yet no situation is like the Middle East. As much as a few extremists in Pakistan might want to use their nukes to wipe India off the map, that is the nation’s political fringe. To my knowledge, no political party has ever been widely elected in Pakistan whose stated goal, as a manifesto, is to kill every Hindu and eliminate the nation of India. Unlike the few million Jews remaining globally after the Holocaust, there are some 1.4 billion Indians, the majority of whom are Hindu. As any walk down New York’s streets, or visit to Niagara Falls, or glance back at cable news medical pandemic punditry will reveal, we Indians are too prolific to eliminate.
With antisemitic and Islamaphobic hate crimes on the rise, even in the fragile but resilient quilt of our polyglot metropolis, we need to remember who we are for the world, what we symbolize.
India’s birth pains of 1947 were radically different from those of Israel in 1948, with the plight of the Pakistanis wildly divergent from that of the Palestinians. Yet from Mountbatten to Balfour, what a mess empires make when their china breaks. As a consequence of boundless British border buffoonery, certain uncanny resemblances appear. East and West Pakistan, divided by the land mass of India, could not hold as one nation, suggesting the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority to govern both the West Bank and Gaza.
Oppression abounds across history. Of a Hindu majority towards Muslims in today’s India. Of extremist settlers, and the soldiers who look the other way, in today’s Israeli incursions into the West Bank. Of a British Raj responsible for the death of over 35 million South Asians and the looting of trillions of pounds, all without recognition in today’s “Great” Britain. Of six million Jews killed by the Nazis. Of an America born from the dual depredations of African slavery and land stolen from its indigenous peoples, a country still unable to pay women equally to men or ask them to lead the nation, unlike Israel or India. Of genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Ukraine, Rohingya, Darfur and the Uyghurs … the list goes on and on. If oppression were the Olympics, there would be so many Gold medalists it would make all competition meaningless.
But as promised, this really isn’t meant to be a political statement, but rather a continuation of my own lifelong meditation about land, what we build on it, and the emotions that building instills. With two major ground wars raging, fueled by grievances we foolishly hoped had subsided decades ago, the world waits with bated breath to see if this will be the next world war or a crooked path to a lasting peace. One can only hope for far better leaders in Israel and across the Arab world who respect both Israel’s sovereignty and the self-determination of the Palestinian people, leaders like Gandhi or King who promote non-violence to craft a two-state solution, or even one unified state in which all could co-exist with equal rights and shared dignity.
As an architect, I can’t help but notice, through all the despair, the pastoral beauty of the Kibbutzim versus the brutal density forced upon Gazans, despite their close proximity.
And if all that sounds hopelessly naive, let’s inspire those leaders, and ourselves, to behold the one-city solution we aspire to here in the Big Apple, however imperfectly. With antisemitic and Islamaphobic hate crimes on the rise, even in the fragile but resilient quilt of our polyglot metropolis, we need to remember who we are for the world, what we symbolize.
A world of 8 billion needs to see — in us — the peaceful coexistence of 8 million.
There is no more diverse city in the world, with Queens alone a living, breathing model United Nations, arguably more model than the UN itself. From sports to entertainment to food to culture, we must double down on what these 300 square miles of urbanity mean to six disparate continents of humanity. For all the destruction in the air, our example can serve to remind others of their own glorious creations. As an architect, I can’t help but notice, through all the despair, the pastoral beauty of the Kibbutzim versus the brutal density forced upon Gazans, despite their close proximity. To the north lay two of the most striking modern cities on the planet, Tel Aviv and Beirut, while the history of Petra beckons us to the southwest. How in our longing for tribe and righteousness do we forget the most delicious breads we together bake? How do we forget what our species is capable of doing together when we are not tearing each other apart?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But to the Jews and Muslims of New York, I can only quote St. Vincent, “New York isn’t New York without you, love.”